Just two miles north of Nevada City, a wooded property with one of the state's last standing and most intact- stamp mills is undergoing a multi-phase restoration and mine tailing removal project that could cost upwards of $1 million.
Once complete, the Davis Mill site could someday open to the public for recreation such as camping and picnicking, say representatives from the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
"This is one of the last standing mill buildings in the Mother Lode," said Peter Graves, an environmental protection specialist for BLM.
Stamp mills like Davis are becoming increasingly rare in California as fire and winter storms take their toll over time.
In it's prime, the Davis Mill was part of a network of mines in a region populated by gold hungry miners staking claims in and around the Yuba River and her many tributary creeks.
Nearby mines included the Hoge, the You Bet, Providence, Champion and, of course, the large hydraulic operation known as Malakoff Diggins.
"They had mines all over the place," said David Christy, public affairs officer for BLM's Central California District.
Visitors to the property won't get a warm welcome. "No Trespassing" signs hang on trees and the old rusty metal siding of the mill building.
Historic gold mining and processing operations carry a legacy of toxic waste posing health hazards to people and the environment. Crumbling infrastructure is also a concern.
"We don't normally want people to come in abandoned mines because of safety concerns," Graves said.
In California, there are an estimated 47,000 abandoned gold mines dotting landscapes in various forms - like mine shafts, tunnels and pits - now dangerously camouflaged by forest overgrowth.
Of these, 18,000 abandoned mine lands are found on BLM properties, with 1,000 of these likely impacting water quality, according to the BLM website.
Elevated levels of arsenic, lead, zinc and mercury found in Little Rock Creek and in mine tailings buried in the soils at the Davis Mill site in 2003 prompted remediation efforts.
The small creek feeds Lake Vera. Mercury poses a risk to organisms living in watersheds and eventually humans who eat contaminated fish.
"Our main goal is to prevent any additional contaminants," washing into the watershed, Graves said.
As the state's population grows, old mine sites like the Davis Mill become encroached upon by residential areas. In recent years, local groups showed interest in recreation at the mine site, but federal officials were forced to turn them away because of unsafe conditions.
"More tailings out there"
BLM was awarded $560,000 in funding from the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act to clean up the site.
Now project cost estimates are creeping closer to $1 million, after crews found approximately 2,851 cubic yards of mine tailings rather than the suspected 2,200 cubic yards.
Last year, crews completed the first phase of the project - a dirty job of removing six cubic yards of mine tailings from Little Rock Creek's floodplain and trucking it offsite to a repository in Wheatland. Clean-up crews had to stop where the federal land borders private property.
"There's more tailings out here," Graves said.
One year later, what's left behind is a football field-sized moonscape devoid of trees. Extracting the contaminated soil undermined the root balls of 100-foot trees, making them unstable. Despite efforts to save them, the trees had to go.
On closer inspection, the area is beginning to show signs of new life. Green shoots of local vegetation is sprouting up from the sunny site where tailings were found 6 feet deep in some areas of the forest floor.
"We're going to try to have it naturally grow back," Graves said.
The Davis Mill was constructed in 1915 and operated intermittently until the 1940s, according to BLM's website.
Built of local timber, the mill building had to be fumigated for termites, wood boring beetles and carpenter ants. The next step is to dig proper drainage around the building to protect its foundation.
A report for the project suggests installing new windows, roof and stabilizing the structure.
"It all has to be done historically correct. This property is on the historical registry. That's one reason we have to maintain its characteristics," Graves said.
A fourth phase of the project will require pulling back the banks of Little Rock Creek to correct elevated tailings found there.
Old timbers from a forgotten tramway can still be found decomposing on the forest floor among the thimbleberry and kit-kit-dizze. A blacksmith shop once stood on an adjacent property.
Though the forest is still and quiet now, a generation ago the stamp mill echoed over great distances as ore was fed into a rock crusher and pulverized beneath the noisy battery of five stamps.
Preserving the Davis Mill is important for telling the history of Nevada County and how the area's mining industry developed, Graves said.
"I really like coming here and I hope it stays," he said.
Laura Brown is a freelance writer who lives in Grass Valley. Contact her at 530-401-4877 or firstname.lastname@example.org.